Ebola Outbreak in North America?

ByABC News
February 6, 2001, 5:50 PM

N E W   Y O R K, Feb. 7 -- It could be just a plane ride away.

Ebola, the deadly virus that kills many of the people it infects and for which there is no knowncure, has hit central African countries, but to date there have been no confirmed cases in North America.

On Wednesday, public health officials announced that a woman hospitalized in Hamilton, Ontario, after becoming ill after flying from Congo to Canada was not suffering from Ebola virus, although there was concern Tuesday she might have been.

Still, the mere suspicion that someone might be suffering from the Ebola virusis enough to put public health officials on red alert.

And, given increased international travel these days, some observers are wondering: could a North American debut of the virus be ahead?

More Ebola Cases in Future?

"It is not impossible" that an Ebola outbreak could occur in North America, says Ann Marie Kimball, an epidemiologist with the School of Public Health at the University of Washington, Seattle. "We live in an age in which the travel time is shorter than the incubation for a disease. You can get infected, go on a plane for 13 or 14 hours and still have two to three days to get sick."

Historically, Kimball says, people would travel by ship and their symptoms would show up by the time they reached port and they could be quarantined. Not so with air travel. "Given travel time today, we may see an increasing number of people becoming ill when they arrive in this country, which makes disease control impossible."

But even if North America's first case of Ebola is confirmed, itis unlikely that many people will have been put at risk ofinfection, others suggest.

Physicians at Toronto General Hospital told Reuters that outbreaks of Ebola are unlikely to be repeated in Canada, because of sufficient hygenic hospital supplies.

And Tom Kerkering, professor of medicine at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, said he felt there "was no fear of an outbreak" based on what Canadian health officials were saying, because the woman in question apparently did not exchange any bodily fluid with travelers on her plane ride. He noted that the way the virus is transmitted is through contact with body fluids, such as saliva and semen.